Despite A Turbulent 2020, Dubai-Based Travel Startup Pickvisa Is Betting On A Brighter 2021


24 December 2020

"I wanted everyone to enjoy traveling like me, without any barriers. We are here with Pickvisa to remove at least one of the obstacles– visa processing hustle.''

“I wanted everyone to enjoy traveling like me, without any barriers.” That’s the reason why Baba Aghayev, back in 2014, decided to found Pickvisa, a web platform that helps in easing the visa application process for travelers across the globe. "We are here with Pickvisa to remove at least one of the obstacles– visa processing hustle.’’ It was while planning for a trip to South Africa in 2014 that Aghayev realized just how much of a hassle it can be to find details relating to applying for a visa to visit a country. Soon after, he decided to create a user-friendly platform that helps minimize an applicant’s involvement in the processing of travel, study, and business visas to any country.

“We handle e-visa applications of 70 countries for any applicable country citizens resided in worldwide,” Aghayev explains. "Applicants create a profile on our website, and use it for all e-visa applications, without typing personal details again and again in each countries’ separate forms." Indeed, one of Pickvisa’s salient features is that it helps eliminate the technical and time-consuming hurdles that come with the portable document format (PDF) used by most visa application forms. “It is just an additional hassle as it takes time to download PDF editing programs, and almost impossible to handle it in a mobile device,” Aghayev notes. "We added 102 offline visa applications of various countries to our visa application form generator tool for applicants to fill them online in a user-friendly page. When they finish it on any device, by one click, the platform prints it in an official visa application forms of consulates as required.”

Another interesting feature Pickvisa has to offer is the visa chance calculator tool, currently in its beta stage, which helps applicants save time and money while applying for visas to the United States of America, Canada, or the United Kingdom. By answering a few simple questions, crafted based on Pickvisa’s previous cases, applicants can find out how much of a legitimate chance they have in obtaining visas to any of the three countries. “More than half of the applicants for the USA, Canada, and UK visas are rejected each year, and they spend lots of non-refundable fees for applications,” Aghayev explains. "What if they knew they had less than 50% chance to obtain those visas beforehand? As results are based on real data, the visa chance calculator will be improved month by month based on new visa cases, and will become more accurate."

Aghayev, who is also a travel blogger (check out his Instagram page @baba.aghayev) and the Secretary-General and Board Member of Azerbaijan Tourism Bloggers Association, had plenty of plans for Pickvisa in 2020. But with the COVID-19 pandemic putting the brakes on travel plans across the globe, and countries closing up its borders to avoid tourists and travelers, his startup wasn’t able to avoid the negative impact felt across the global travel industry. “In the months of March and April, lots of travelers were stuck in various countries,” Aghayev remembers. "The demanding service we provided back then was extending the active visas for them to stay longer in destinations. Sometimes, we still get calls from transit passengers who are stuck in Dubai International Airport, and need support with a visa to another country."

One of the most affected groups of travelers during the crisis was that of university students, with many either stranded in their home countries unable to return to their campuses, or continuing to stay abroad in order to continue their education. Aghayev says that the applications for student visas increased exponentially during this period. “Usually, the annual split of our annual revenue between travel and study visas would be 70% versus 20% (10% other visa types),” he says. “2020 was all vice versa, as most of the customers applied for study visas. At the same time, lots of students could not study abroad, because of new policies in some universities regarding distant education. We did our best to support them in hard times.”

With the chaos that followed in the next couple of months, Pickvisa went into “a survival period” for all tourism products. With “cash in” being the ultimate motive to make it through this period, the Pickvisa team resorted to other avenues to ensure revenue. Opportunities such as selling pre-order, early-bird packages, services, and products for more affordable prices to loyal customers, partnering with the right companies for affiliate sales to monetize site traffic, as well as paid webinars helped the company endure this tumultuous period. The team also invested time in building travel-related mobile phone games, as well as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) tools– with most people confined to their houses for the majority of the year, this move proved useful to Pickvisa.

Aghayev believes that sticking to alternative routes such as these is pivotal to ensuring survival until the market fully recovers. But he is also wary of the fact that he and his team must use this time to further improve their existing and upcoming visa application services to be fully prepared for a post-pandemic world. “The biggest lesson this year was ‘turning our expenses to assets’ (i.e. opex to capex) in such volatile times,” he explains. “As soon as we understood that the market is down and it will not recover soon, we changed the course of actions toward improving our current assets like the website, visa tools, and platforms we are building.  It was, and still is, ‘assets building time’ for us, for the tourism field.”

When asked about what’s next, Aghayev replies in a blatantly honest fashion. “We do not know how long it will take to win this battle, but the tourism industry will suffer at least in 2021 too,” he says. "Most of the destinations will continue the lockdown for travelers. However, there are several countries whose core industry is tourism as like iconic islands in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. The ongoing economic crisis will devastate the tourism market in those lands, and it will take years to recover. In my opinion, after the pandemic, the overall travel market capitalization will grow around from 35% to 40% compared to the pre-pandemic period. If we survive it, we will become stronger!”

But with hopes that most countries will ease visa documentation processes and apply the e-visa system to recover quickly in a post-pandemic world, Aghayev continues to look forward to the future. “As a startup mindset, we should adapt to the current situation, “he says. “We have some plans related to VR and AR technologies if the market does not recover in the upcoming three to four months.” In addition, the company’s Abeona, a B2B travel portal that uses an integrated CRM system to help small travel agencies manage customer information and better communicate with them, is all set for a March 2021 launch. “I believe that each calamity brings lots of opportunities with it,” Aghayev concludes. "If we are in a challenge, our rivals are, too!”